This semester we will work on one set of linked projects that makes an analysis of the commodity form through the medium of graphic design. Throughout our studio work, we will endeavor to gain a critical perspective, as thinkers and designers, on the contemporary and historical commodity form: that peculiar form — cryptical, fantastical, enigmatic, mysterious — that products of labor take in capitalism.
While we will find ways, as we go, to reflect on the political implications of our analysis of this commodity form, we will be principally concerned with its design aspects, with uncovering senses in which the capitalist commodity itself, in all its mysteries and contradictions, might be understood as fundamentally a form of design. Or we could put it the other way around: the historical and contemporary forms of graphic design are themselves “merely” aspects of the contradiction of the capitalist commodity. In either case, we have a double interest: what produces the appearance of the commodity in the contemporary visible world, and what the salient capacities of graphic design are in composing that appearance.
Commodities, following Marx’s richly metaphoric analysis in Capital, express a “double form”: a natural form and a value form. Or, a use-value and an exchange-value. In a critical spirit, we will aim in our studio work this semester to go beyond the appearance of the commodity and to make visible what lies behind or within its form, and to show how this commodity form itself inverts, distorts, and transfigures the content of the social labor which produces it. In our studio, we will test the capacity of graphic design, as itself a set of forms fundamentally linked to the commodity, to make visible (and to question) the social dimensions of the world in which the commodity operates.
We will make set of mostly short readings throughout the semester, to give us concepts to guide our work. But the emphasis will be on producing graphic design as experiments with aspects of the commodity form. The texts we will read are there to furnish us with concepts to trigger the forms of our practice.
Studio work this semester will center on a particular commodity, or genera of commodity, that you identify in the first part of the course. You will research and experiment with various graphic design forms for the commodities you focus on, as salacious texts, obsolete images, pop-up ads, instructional videos, etc. throughout the semester. As you identify your commodity (“know your product”), understand that, while all commodities, according to Marx, appear as inverted “hieroglyphs”, we are interested in a special subclass of commodities that are explicitly
magical, mysterious, spiritual, mystical, enigmatic, metaphorical, symbolic, cryptic, etc.
Some examples that come immediately to mind are
phones, sneakers, cars, watches, drugs, pet rocks, electricity, software, cbd, gold, rubik’s cubes, crypto-currency, hula hoops, skin care, gasoline, ebooks, t-shirts, meme stocks, prefabricated accessory dwelling units, conceptual art, etc.
This is a class of commodity that might be tentatively defined as one whose exchange value flagrantly and spectacularly exceeds its use value. Perhaps these are also commodities for which design is a fundamental quality of their form. This special class of commodities possess that compromised and contradictory form which Sianne Ngai identifies as a gimmick: “overrated devices that strike us as working too little (labor-saving tricks) but also as working too hard (strained efforts to get our attention).” To perceive a commodity as a gimmick involves both making a negative judgement about the labor that produces it, or which it produces, as well as a conflation of aesthetic and economic value.
We will endeavor to get to know — to analyze and demystify but also to evoke and exaggerate — these gimmicks that compose the hilarious and bewitching world of commodities in which we live and breathe and practice graphic design.